If you are planning on visiting the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in Switzerland then chances are you are weighing up whether to base yourself at either Locarno or Lugano.
Both of these spots are incredibly similar in a lot of ways. They are both close to the Italian Swiss Alps, sit on the shores of alpine lakes, and are packed full of Italian culture.
But, at the same time, the towns are very different too, so which one will suit you best? That is what I am here to help you with.
Join me as we take a deep dive into both Locarno and Lugano in detail and compare what each has to offer so that you can pick the perfect destination for your stay in Ticino, Switzerland.
Table of Contents
About The Towns
Sitting on the shores of Lake Lugano, the town of Lugano is the biggest town in the entire Ticino canton and is home to around 60,000 people or more. It is also the third biggest Swiss financial hub after Geneva and Zurich.
Being a larger town than Locarno, Lugano is busy and full of life. You will find lots of different accommodation options, more restaurants with a larger variety of cuisines, lots of shops, and the nightlife is more happening in Lugano too.
The atmosphere of Lugano is very much alive and it is easy to get swept up in it. You will be blessed with reaching views across the lake, and if you are there in summer enjoy sunbathing, swimming, and all the other activities the lake has to offer.
Lugano is quite far from the Swiss alps though and if you want to do some alpine exploration, you are going to have to travel a bit. Overall, it is not that convenient.
Locarno sits on the northern shores of Lake Maggiore and is the third largest town in the Ticino canton. With home to just 16,000 residents and known more for culture and access to the alps than anything, it has a laid-back vibe to it.
That is not to say there is nothing to do in Locarno. It is still a very popular tourist destination with great hotels, restaurants, and shops plus some great nightlife. But it is much more relaxing than the busy streets of Lugano.
Thanks to the lakeside location, you of course get great views and can access the lake for numerous water-based activities throughout the year, and daily swims are a must in the summertime!
Locarno is located at the base of the Swiss Alps and therefore exploring them is very easy. You can get to awesome valleys and peaks with ease. You will also find that Locarno throws a lot of cultural events including the Locarno Film Festival.
What Are The Major Differences?
Now that we know a little bit about the two towns, let’s take a deeper look at the key differences between them so you can have a clearer picture of which one to stay in.
- Lugano is much bigger and busier than Locarno. This makes it a lively place with more options when it comes to accommodation, dining, and shopping but it has a faster pace with more people and more traffic
- Locarno is chilled in comparison to Lugano. There are fewer hotel/restaurant/shop options but they still have some great ones. The streets are more relaxed, there are fewer people and less traffic.
- If you want to access the Swiss alps, then Locarno is much closer to the valleys and peaks that are a delight to explore. Lugano, on the other hand, is much further away which makes day trips into the mountains quite a slog
Overall, if you want easy access to nature and to be in a more relaxing town, Locarno will suit you better. For anyone who wants a vibrant happening town with lively nightlife, lots of restaurants, and more, Lugano may suit you better.
Getting to either of these towns is incredibly easy despite their alpine location. You should fly into either Zurich or Milan and then catch a train.
Lugano is the easiest of the two to get to, but not by much. You can get a direct train from Milan central station to Lugano that takes just 1 hour and 18 minutes. From Zurich central station, there is a direct train that takes you there in just 1 hour and 53 minutes.
To get to Locarno from Milan you can also take a direct train which takes just 1 hour and 44 minutes. From Zurich central station, the journey is 1 hour and 58 minutes and it requires you to change trains once.
Driving to Locarno takes about 2 hours from Milan and 2.5 hours from Zurich. The journey by car from Milan to Lugano is 1 hour and 20 minutes, and 2 hours and 40 minutes from Zurich.
As you can see, the travel time between Lugano and Locarno from either Milan or Zurich is negligible and the costs are very similar too.
No matter which one you choose, you’ll be able to get there very easily for a pretty cheap price.
How’s Public Transport?
While both Locarno and Lugano are mainly Italian speaking they still run on Swiss public transport infrastructure which is highly efficient.
As you already know, the train networks connecting both the towns to major hubs are excellent and you can use them to explore areas outside of the towns with ease too.
Both of these towns are very walkable and when navigating around the city center and lake shores, walking is without a doubt, the best way to go.
The towns also offer efficient bus services and you can hop on boats to explore different parts of the lakes. In Locarno, there are also cable cars to take you up the mountains.
Driving is not recommended in either of the towns as there are a lot of one-way streets and pedestrianized zones. You might want a car to explore remote alpine areas around Locarno, but managing without is very doable too.
Things To Do In Locarno
Go To The Peak Of Cimetta Mountain
Since Locarno sits so close to the Lepontine Alps, heading up to one of the closest peaks for incredible views is a must during your visit.
Luckily, the peak of Mt Cimetta is incredibly easy to get to. Simply hop on the funicular from Locarno to Orselina, then change onto a cable car to Cardada, from which you take a chairlift to the peak.
The journey itself is rather magical. As you slowly ascend into the alps you will get stunning views across Lake Maggiore and the mountain scenery that goes with it.
Once you are at the peak the views are simply mind-blowing. You’ll be able to see across the peaks of the alps, down to Locarno, and across the lake. Be sure to choose a clear day for the best views.
You will also find a playground on the top for children and there is even a treasure hunt they can do on the peak as well.
Explore Valle Maggia
Literally just up the road from Locarno is the Maggia Valley which is formed by the Maggia River that flows through Locarno and into Lake Maggiore.
The Maggia valley is the third biggest alpine valley in the Ticino canton and it is beautiful to explore. You will find numerous hiking trails that take you through forests, along the river, and up into the mountains.
There are also lots of quaint alpine villages to visit along the way where you can stop for lunch and a stroll.
Take A Boat To The Brissago Islands
It would be a crime to stay on the shores of Lake Maggiore and not go for a boat ride, and a boat ride with a purpose is always better than one without.
Sitting in the middle of Lake Maggiore are the Brissago Islands, one of which is home to an amazing botanical garden. Enjoy cruising across the pristine water of the lake and then explore the gardens with over 1500 species of plant from across the world.
There is also an excellent restaurant on the island for lunch and you can walk around the island, have a swim, and take a picnic with you too. This is something that can not be missed while staying in Locarno.
Visit The Stunning Verzasca Valley
One of the most beautiful valleys in Ticino, Verzasca Valley is right next to Locarno and exploring it is something you simply have to do while you are there.
The valley starts at the beautiful Lago di Vogorno and into which the stunning Verzasca River flows into. You couldn’t find a more pristine alpine setting with a lake surrounded by forested slopes, a crystal blue river, and mountain peaks in all directions.
There are also some magical alpine villages to visit along the valley and a stop at the Ponte Dei Salti bridge which crosses the river for a quick swim can not be missed!
Visit The Nearby Town Of Ascona
Just a 6-minute bus ride or 30-minute walk from Locarno is the charming town of Ascona. Ascona sits on the other side of the Maggia River from Locarno and is also on the shores of Lake Maggiore.
This is a charming town packed full of stunning Mediterranean-style architecture and is quite different from Locarno. It is lovely to spend the day in, enjoying lunch, and exploring everything the town has to offer.
Things To Do In Lugano
Take In The Views Of Monte San Salvatore
Just down the lake from Lugano is the local Mount San Salvatore. The mountain stands more than 900 meters on the shores of Lake Lugano and the views from the peak are absolutely stunning.
You will be able to see new aspects of the lake and into the mountain peaks of the surrounding Alps. There are also lots of hiking trails that connect to the peak which you can follow to nearby lake towns like Morcote and Carona.
Getting to the top of the mountain is very easy. Simply take public transport to the funicular station in the neighboring town of Paradiso. From there, the funicular takes you to the top of the mountain in less than 15 minutes.
You can also hike up the mountain if you are looking for a serious challenge or you can take the funicular up the mountain and hike back down which takes just an hour.
Go On A Lake Lugano Boat Ride
Lake Lugano is absolutely beautiful as it is surrounded by steep forest-covered mountain slopes that fall into the sea. The views of the lake from Lugano are quite limited as the lake is long and thin, meaning the best way to see all it has to offer is on a boat tour.
Numerous boat tours operate from Lugano and they last around three hours. You will see a lot more of the lake, and magical views, and can choose to do a morning or sunset tour.
There are more fancy options too which involve dinner and going on old-school boats which might be preferable, especially if you are looking for a little bit of romance.
See The Views From The Sunniest Spot In Switzerland
To the east of Lugano is Monte Bre, known as the sunniest spot in Switzerland. You can reach it via a funicular and the views from the summit at 900 meters above sea level are stunning.
You will be able to see across the lake, and into both the Bernese and Pennine Alps. The mountain is also home to the Christmas rose which is rare as it only grows in Mediterranean climates.
At the top, you will also find two restaurants serving delicious food and great drinks. It is a stunning place to have lunch or a sunset drink/dinner with incredible views.
You should also stop off at the village of Bre as it is beautiful to stroll around thanks to its mountainside/lakeside location.
Locarno vs Lugano: What’s The Verdict
In all honesty, it only takes 20 minutes by train to get from Locarno to Lugano. This means, choosing where to stay in the Locarno vs Lugano dilemma is more about what you want around you than things to do.
Locarno is relaxed with way fewer people and a more chilled atmosphere. If lots of people and commotion aren’t your thing, stay in Locarno.
If you are looking for a lively atmosphere with lots happening, cultural sites, and tons of restaurant options, Lugano is going to suit you better.